Bringing Back B’nai David
Organizers launch Phase 2 of the cleanup of the historic cemetery.
A second cleanup day for the historic B’nai David Cemetery — the Jewish cemetery on Van Dyke between Harper and McNichols in Detroit — is scheduled for Sept. 14 at 10 a.m., and organizers are hoping the community will respond the way it did at the first cleanup day in April, when more than 150 people came out to cut the grass, trim trees, pick up trash and clean the tops of graves.
The abandoned cemetery had been overgrown by weeds. Garbage littered the ground, and many of the headstones had fallen over. Goldman’s daughter Eva spurred the idea for the cemetery cleanup during an annual visit to the grave of her great-great-grandmother, Esther Malka Shibovich, who died of the flu in 1918 and was buried at B’nai David.
“The diversity of people who came was amazing,” said organizer David Goldman of Farmington Hills, Eva’s dad. “We had former B’nai David members, young people from local shuls and even residents of the area who had no connection to the Jewish community.”
Goldman said some elderly people came and were overcome with emotion to come back and see the cemetery.
As part of the cleanup effort, Ben Falik of Repair the World, in partnership with recycling organization De-Tread, arranged to have 800 old tires picked up and removed from the cemetery’s perimeter.
“The surrounding area of the cemetery is a notorious dumping site,” Falik said. “We had micro-grant funding from the Jewish Fund to do it and were able to help beautify the cemetery. All those old tires were recycled into sandals.”
Goldman said he is hoping for another day like the last. “Although a lot was accomplished — a $4,000 donation means the grass will already be mowed — there is still a long way to go,” he said. “Sept. 14 we will be focusing on cleaning the tops of graves.”
His goal is to make the cemetery safer and more accessible so people feel comfortable visiting the graves of their family members when they want.
Phase 2 also marks the launch of a more focused fundraising effort, he said.
The Friends of B’nai David Cemetery has formed a board, which is working on raising an endowment of about $350,000, which should throw off enough money to take care of basic maintenance at the cemetery.
The Cemetery’s Future
“We are reaching out to former members, other philanthropic folks in the community and local Jewish foundations to raise funds,” Goldman said.
Ralph Zuckman, executive director of the Clover Hill Park Jewish Cemetery in Birmingham, who also runs the Greater Detroit Jewish Cemetery Association and was previous head of the Jewish Cemetery Association of North America, is on the board of the Friends of B’nai David. “I understand what needs to be done, so I’m providing a guiding hand to restore the dignity to the cemetery,” he said.
According to Zuckman, B’nai David is not alone. There are abandoned Jewish cemeteries across the country as synagogues ceased to exist and populations shifted. In Cleveland, for example, the Federation took ownership of some abandoned cemeteries. In Boston, a foundation, which received an allocation from its federation, was created to care for abandoned cemeteries.
“Here in Detroit, we are trying to establish a small trust fund to support basic maintenance at B’nai David to allow us to at least make it look respectable,” Zuckman said. “It will take a community effort.”
Eli Saulson, a real estate investor who lives in Franklin and serves on the board of the Davidson Foundation, went to B’nai David because “Goldman was my friend, and I wanted to help,” he said.
Saulson, a member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, arrived at the cemetery thinking his family had no connection to it. “It’s a fairly small cemetery; and as I walked around looking at names on the tombstones, I discovered Max and Bella Boesky — my maternal great-grandparents,” he said. “I’m sure there are many more people like me who have no knowledge that their family is even buried there.”
Saulson believes the community should band together to create a perpetual care fund for the cemetery.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people like me who are open to helping out. It’s a question of having respect for our ancestors.”
The Friends of B’nai David are also working on mapping out the burials so people have an easier time finding the graves of their family members.
The cemetery had its first burial in 1898, six years after the founding of Beth David Synagogue. There are about 1,200 grave sites there, and the last known burial was in 2009. The Friends of B’nai David has a list of burials, but it is only accurate to 1993. The list is available at www.bnaidavid.weebly.com.
The Friends of B’nai David Community Clean Up Day is Sept. 14 at 10 a.m. The cemetery is located on Van Dyke between Harper and McNichols in Detroit. Sign up at the Friends of B’nai David Facebook page.
If you can’t make it Sept. 14, there is another chance this year to help clean up the cemetery. Ben Falik said that Repair the World will again be at the B’nai David Cemetery on Nov. 9, the community’s Fall Fix-Up Day. “We’re considering beautifying the cemetery with a mural,” Falik said.
– By Jackie Headapohl, Managing Editor